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Overcoming Gunshyness in Gun Dogs

Overcoming Gunshyness in Gun Dogs

The key is taking it slowly.

I am a 17-year-old-boy, and I have a five-year-old English setter. I bought/rescued her from a guy who was moving out of the country. He got her as a puppy and left her down in the basement with a 10-year-old Brittany. He let both of them out into a fenced area for the day and kept them in the basement at night. He was hoping that the older dog would train the younger one.

This setter was rescued as a one-year-old by Dr. Bailey's 17-year-old correspondent. She is now a crackerjack bird finder but suffers from gunshyness. Dr. Bailey recommends a slow desensitizing process to get her over her fear.

He and his wife had a set of twins, so the puppy did not get any human interaction. I bought her at a year old. She had the potential and the genetics to be a great bird dog, and she is now an awesome dog in the field and around the house. But because of not being interacted with as a puppy, she is very shy around people she doesn't know.

She is fine around family and friends, but with strangers she barks and acts like she will rip a limb off, yet if they get close she will run away. I have done all I can, but now I think I need some suggestions on how to proceed.

She has been worked on quail, pheasants, some grouse and woodcock. She points great and hard, and when I say "get them" she flushes them out. I like that about her. But this is the real problem: she is gunshy.

When I shoot, she runs to my dad for security. She is fine when I shoot a .22 pellet gun or when I shoot a .22 short, and when I shoot a .22 long, she is mostly fine but sometimes shakes. When she hears gunshots, she looks to me for reassurance.

I've read some ways for introducing a dog to the gun, but I don't think those ways would work with her. Should I continue working with her, or should I just get a new pup and start fresh?

She is also a housedog and has never been kenneled, so it is not realistic to send her to a professional trainer because she couldn't stay in a kennel. Thanks for your help and input; I have attached a picture of her.

You sound like a pretty mature 17-year-old to me. You took on quite a responsibility rescuing your dog, and you are facing up to the responsibility. That's impressive.

Thanks for sending her picture. She is a great-looking dog. You have already done a lot getting her over her shyness of people, and you are well started in getting her desensitized to gunshot noise. I am certain you will be able to get her over her noise sensitivity.

It will take a lot of patience and might take quite a bit of time. It won't be the easiest thing you've ever done, but I am confident that you can do it. She looks like too nice a dog to ever give up on.

She is already okay with .22 shorts, so start her off with .22 longs or long rifles. First, you will need a helper to do the shooting. Take your dog out in a large field area for a run. Set up your helper at one edge of the field out of sight of the dog but so he can see your signal for when to shoot.

When your dog is running and enjoying herself about 300-400 hundred yards from the helper, signal by lifting and then dropping your arm for him to shoot one shot only. The intensity of the sound of the shot that reaches the dog should not be louder than a .22 short. Watch her closely for signs of fearfulness, like dropping her tail, putting her ears back or dropping them down, or ducking her head. These can be subtle, so you will need to watch carefully.

If you see none of these signs, praise your dog and continue letting her run and enjoy herself. If you see she is reacting fearfully, stop the shooting for a while; half an hour should do it. Then try again, but much farther away.

If there is no fearful response, work her in about 25 yards closer to your helper and signal for another shot. Again, watch closely for indications of fearfulness. If there are none, again praise her and continue the run for a few more minutes, then call it a day.

Next day, or next time out (don't wait too long between outings), start with the last distance where she didn't respond. Do the same as before, then after a few minutes get closer by about 50 yards. If she is showing no fear, get about 30 yards closer. Test her and then quit for that day.

The next day, start again at the last distance where she didn't respond, then go two more times, 20 to 25 steps closer. If she is still OK with this, then you might try a shot only 30 to 50 yards from your helper.

She will not respond the same each day, so you will have to play it by ear for how many times a day and the distance you close in. Some days it will be four, some only two, some days more. Sometimes you will be able to make 50-yard jumps and sometimes only 10.

You will have to learn what speed she is comfortable with on any given day by reading her responses to the shots.

If ever along the way she shows some fearfulness, don't panic; simply let her run a while without a shot noise so she forgets about it, then back up a few steps, have a shot fired and quit for the day. Next day, back up several steps and then come at it again more carefully, with shorter decreases in distances. For example, instead of decreasing the distance by 10 yards, decrease it by only five so the change is more gradual. The changes in noise intensity have to be gradual enough so she doesn't notice any change.

Continue doing this procedure until your helper is walking closely beside you when he shoots. Then go to a louder shot noise like, say, a starter pistol that uses shot shell primers. Repeat the whole thing starting back at a few hundred yards and working gradually closer, as you did before.

Later, when you get to still-louder guns like a .410, you can plant a bird. Pigeons work well because they fly better than pen-raised quail. Have your dog flush on command as you have been doing and let her be chasing the bird when you shoot.

Keep working up in loudness very carefully and gradually. Be careful not to go too fast, taking at least six or eight weeks to go from the .22 to the 12 gauge. This procedure is called desensitizing to noise (gunshot in this case).

Do not try any "flooding" techniques like taking her to a trap range and tying her down just behind the line with 30 or 40 people shooting in a day. This "flooding" is almost always a catastrophe, making the dog a basket case and more fearful than it was before.

In desensitizing a dog to loud noise, you cannot go too slow, but you certainly can go too fast, and that will set you right back to starting over again. Good luck and if you have any questions or run into any problems, e-mail me right away. And please keep me posted on her progress.

For solutions to your dog's behavioral problem or behavior-related training problem, you can contact Ed Bailey at

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